Don’t Give Up Writing

Every day that goes by, more people seem to use ChatGPT. Some use it as an assistive tool mainly for researching before writing. Others are hoping that ChatGPT and similar tools will free them from the need to write social posts, articles, emails, and maybe even books. Judging by how most people outsourced their social interactions and media consumption to algorithms without giving it a second thought, I fear most people belong to the second group. 

In a previous post, I tried to demonstrate where ChatGPT falls short. It still is, but in retrospect, there’s a pretty good chance that what I wrote in that post would be obsolete in a couple of months. ChatGPT and its competitors continue to evolve, and the text they generate seems to improve every week. Why wouldn’t we rely on AI to replace our writing if that’s the case? Maybe in the near future, AI could write this post better than I can. It will certainly do it faster, so why bother? Perhaps everyone who hopes to outsource their writing is right. Or maybe, they miss the point of writing altogether. 

We tend to think of writing in terms of the result: the text we create. When we care only about the output, we are indeed in competition with AI-generated text. At the moment, we still have quite an edge over AI. While AI is faster, it primarily mixes infinite resources and statistically predicts the next word in a sequence. It has no understanding of the world, and it lacks any creativity and imagination. If you need just the bare facts, AI might be able to help you (with the risk of generating false information). But if you want to spice up your text with creative metaphors, examples, analogies, and thought-provoking contrasts, you must rely on yourself. For now. 

But the power of writing goes way beyond the importance of its output. Writing is an act of thinking. In fact, writing is a higher degree of thinking. In the words of Evan Puschak in his book Escape into Meaning:

“What we normally imagine as “thinking” is really just a distracted form of writing, like having a disoriented drunk at a typewriter behind your eyes. Writing sobers him up. The pen (or the word processor) lets the mind compose language into knowledge that’s far more sophisticated than what that little boozer can do on his own.”

When I write, I think. I start with sketching bits of data, information, thoughts, insights, examples, and metaphors. I build a model of what I wish to express. I experiment with different logical flows, and I try to anticipate what would be the best way to share my ideas and affect people. When I am happy with my blueprint, I start writing the actual text. Sometimes, the words just flow. At other times, I struggle with articulating my thoughts in a way that will make an impact. For better or worse, my writing is me, and it helps me evolve.

If I only cared about publishing something every day, I’d go for ChatGPT. But then, I would lose the real benefit of writing: thinking more clearly and communicating more effectively. If you give that up, you outsource your ability to create your own model of the world. 

I wouldn’t replace reading a book with algorithm-driven social media. I use Photoshop all the time, but I wouldn’t replace taking a photo of something amazing I see with an AI-generated image. And no matter how effective text prediction gets, I will never give up the ability to arrange my thoughts and communicate them in my own words. Automation is great for repetitive, technical tasks that carry no value beyond their output. Writing is not such an activity. 

Outsourcing writing to AI is unlike using Google Maps to find the best route to your destination. It is like replacing going on a trip in the first place with staying at home with a VR headset blocking your sight. It sounds cool at first, and the technology behind it is absolutely amazing. But the experience it provides is shallow to the extent that it becomes meaningless, or worse: dehumanizing.

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